Ukraine investigating role of Belarus in transfers of children - prosecutor

FILE PHOTO: Iryna embraces her 13-year-old son Bohdan, who was taken to Russia, after he returned via the Ukraine-Belarus border, in Kyiv

By Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Ukraine is investigating the alleged role of Belarus in the forced transfer of children from Russian-occupied territories, the office of the prosecutor general told Reuters on Tuesday.

The announcement came in response to a report by the exiled Belarusian opposition alleging that 2,150 Ukrainian children, including orphans aged six to 15, were taken to so-called recreation camps and sanatoriums on Belarusian territory.

The National Anti-Crisis Management, a group of political opponents to the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, said in its preliminary report that the children were taken to at least three locations in Belarus.

Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin's office told Reuters it has launched criminal proceedings into "the forced transportation/deportation of over 19,000 children" from the occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Kharkiv, including to Belarus.

"The fact and circumstances of taking Ukrainian children from the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine to the so-called 'recreational camps' in Belarus are currently under investigation in the mentioned criminal proceedings," it said.

Reuters did not receive answers to questions sent to Lukashenko's office.

In March, the International Criminal Court, the world's permanent war crimes tribunal, issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ombudsman for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, on two counts of war crimes for moving hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia.

Yulia Ioffe, an assistant professor at University College London and a specialist in children's rights law, said that if substantiated, Belarus would "highly likely" be violating the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"The actions of Belarus may also amount to the crime against humanity of ‘deportation of forcible transfer of population’ under the Rome Statute of the ICC, provided there is sufficient evidence of forcible transfers being widespread or systematic," Ioffe said.

Belarus in any case cannot be considered a neutral country to where children could legally be evacuated because there is no indication Ukraine has granted consent, she said.

The report asserts that Ukrainian children were taken to the Belarusian Golden SandsSanatorium in the Gomel region and the Ostroshitsky Gorodok Sanatorium and Dubrava camp in the Minsk region.

The transfers of children to Belarus were illegal and in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the statute of the ICC, the report said.

A first group of approximately 350 children arrived from the occupied Donetsk region on Sept. 5 and 6, followed by the second and third group in late September and mid-October, it said. Additional transfers were made in April and May of this year.

The children were taken by bus to Russia from Russian-held territories of Ukraine and then by train to Belarus, it said.

"Lukashenko personally ordered the transfers of orphans to Belarus and facilitated their arrival by financial and organisational support," it said, accusing him of war crimes.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Stephanie van den Berg and Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Nick Macfie)